The time is right for an AHL team to return to Abbotsford.
If you’re an Abbotsford taxpayer freaking out at that statement, I don’t blame you. “The City in the Country” had a miserable experience with professional hockey the first time around, losing millions of taxpayer dollars during the Abbotsford Heat’s five-year run in the Fraser Valley.
You didn’t need to be a business expert to realize the Heat were doomed from Day 1, after the Calgary Flames’ farm team set up shop in Abbotsford in 2009.
To start with, it was the wrong team, as cheering for Flames prospects is sacrilege in the Canucks-mad market. Fans stayed away, as the Heat consistently ranked near the bottom of the league in average attendance from 2009-10 until their final year in Abbotsford in 2013-14, despite icing good teams.
To make matters worse, the city guaranteed the hockey team would break even, up to a maximum annual budget of $5.7 million.
But that was then and this his now.
One of the biggest challenges presented to the Heat was their insane travel schedule, as the AHL was predominantly an east coast league in those days.
Their closest rival was the Manitoba Moose, a team whose home rink was two time zones away in Winnipeg.
The AHL has changed, moving a number of teams west in recent years. There’s even a Pacific Division, with five teams in California, one in Arizona, and a new team in Colorado. It just so happens that the Pacific Division has an opening for a new team, too:
A new division alignment for the 2018-19 season has been approved by the AHL Board of Governors.
— AHL (@TheAHL) May 7, 2018
The AHL also has an unbalanced schedule to help western teams offset travel concerns. West coast teams play just 68 games, eight fewer than the 76-game schedule the rest of the league plays. They also don’t play teams in the Eastern Conference, which greatly reduces their air miles.
Abbotsford, by contrast, had none of these advantages. During their final season, they made two trips to Utica. The Heat now call Stockton, California home, playing just six road games against teams from outside of their division.
While every opponent would still require a flight from Abbotsford, the challenge for a local team today is not nearly as daunting as what the Heat faced. A travel schedule for a team in the Fraser Valley would now be comparable to what Manitoba faces.
While the Canucks have said they’re happy with the environment that Utica offers their prospects, having their AHL team on the other side of the continent is a huge drawback.
“I think that Vancouver, Trevor [Linden] and the management group are really happy with the setup [in Utica],” said AHL president Dave Andrews earlier this year. “The only thing that would change that, I suppose, is the determination that player development would be better served by being on the west coast.”
While the Comets sell out every game and have a wonderfully passionate fanbase, no other NHL team comes close to the Canucks in terms of the distance they have to travel to see their prospects in action.
A trip to Utica – a city in upstate New York, without an international airport – typically requires a stopover in Chicago, before flying to Syracuse, which is still an hour drive away from the team’s home arena.
While the Comets have an easier travel schedule than anything Abbotsford can offer, the ability to keep a close eye on their prospects, as well as scout those from opposing teams, should be tempting for the Canucks.
The current agreement in place with the Utica Comets expires at the end of next season, with an option to renew, meaning that the team could be moved as soon as next year.
The Canucks could keep status quo in Utica, but the allure of having their AHL team nearby at the 7,000-seat Abbotsford Centre has to be significant.
Alternatively, the Canucks could move their AHL affiliate to Vancouver and play out of the presently vacant Pacific Coliseum or even Rogers Arena, which they own.
Moving their farm team close by would follow a trend among a few NHL teams, as Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg, San Jose, and Los Angeles all effectively have their AHL affiliate in their hometown. In the case of Winnipeg and San Jose, their AHL teams play in the same arena as the parent club.
Having their AHL team close by would also allow the Canucks to take advantage of economies of scale by incorporating things like sales and marketing into their existing business operations.
In a time where prospects are followed by fans more closely than ever, an AHL team would be more marketable than ever before. It would also allow Canucks ownership to capture another segment of the market, while keeping fans under the blue-and-green umbrella.